I’m guessing that you’ve heard about the Mohammed cartoon controversy (see Wikipedia article). To make a long story short, Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, just trying to do their bit for world peace and harmony, invited artists to submit cartoons with the prophet Mohammed as their subject. They published twelve of them, featuring various degrees of ridicule of Islam. (You can see the cartoons here.) Muslims worldwide reacted with outrage, featuring protests, rioting, arson, and at least one counter-cartoon contest — sponsored by an Iranian newspaper, asking for cartoons about the Holocaust. (Presumably because they think that Danes were the major targets of the Holocaust?) There is no shortage of blogging on the topic; for contrasting views, see series at Daily Kos and the Volokh Conspiracy.
I haven’t said anything about the controversy, both because I’ve been busy and since I thought the major points were perfectly obvious. The most-discussed points of contention seem to have been: “Did the Danish newspaper have the right to publish such offensive cartoons?”, and “Did the protestors have the right to resort to arson and rioting in response?” Put that way, the answers are obviously “Yes” and “No,” and there’s not much more to say.
Denmark, as far as I know, is not covered by the First Amendment, but in a democratic society newspapers should be permitted to publish just about whatever they want. The fear of offending people is no reason to suppress public speech. (Speech within private associations is a different matter.) The correct response, if something is said with which you disagree, is to say something else in return — the free market of ideas. True, the cartoons in question are low-brow and intentionally provocative, not the expression of any subtle argumentation. But quality of the speech is not relevant. If you don’t like it, let your displeasure be known, like this London (!) protester is doing:
A little self-undermining, maybe, but certainly taking advantage of an appropriate outlet for his own personal expression.
The violent reaction from some Muslims (not all, certainly) is completely inappropriate by any standard. This kind of destructive impulse is not something unique to Islam; it’s a familiar human response, one that is encouraged by fundamentalism of all kinds. At its source, it’s the same impulse that leads people to bomb abortion clinics or set fire to rural churches. Demonization of people unlike you, and violent action against them, is a frequent feature of extreme religious belief; not all religious belief, obviously, but a particularly virulent strain. It is antithetical in every way to the values of a liberal democratic society. This is a paradox of free societies: they must tolerate all sorts of belief, even those that are incompatible with freedom.
The subtleties of the cartoon issue only arise when we move from the question of whether Jyllands-Posten should have been allowed to publish the cartoons (since they obviously should have been), to whether it was a good idea to actually do so. Just because speech is allowed doesn’t mean it is mandatory. Knowing that the cartoons would offend the sensibilities of many Muslims, should the newspaper have printed them?
It’s easier to defend freedom of offensive expression when you’re not the one being offended. The same newspaper has apparently been less willing to publish potentially offensive cartoons about Jesus, for example. And many of the folks who are vociferously defending the cartoons are less willing to stand up for freedom of expression when it comes to flag burning. On the flip side, they have asked whether those who wring their hands over giving offense were all that bothered about works of art that offended Christians, such as Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary (you know, the one with the elephant dung).
Whether or not a group should offend another group (granting that they have the right to) isn’t a matter of fundamental rights, it’s a matter of politeness and civil discourse. The analogy between the Mohammed cartoons and Piss Christ is not a very close one. The former were published in a newspaper, almost begging to be distributed as widely as possible. The latter was shown in an art museum; if you didn’t want to go, nobody was forcing you. Art is (sometimes) supposed to be shocking and provocative; the idea that a gallery should refrain from displaying pieces that offend some people’s sensibilities is dangerous and counter-productive.
Still, even though it was a much more public forum, I don’t think that requirements of civility and politeness are paramount here. It’s true that, although I personally am happy to explain to Muslims why their ideas about religion are completely incorrect, I wouldn’t go out of my way to simply be offensive to their beliefs. But it’s not my newspaper. The editors of Jyllands-Posten weren’t being offensive by mistake; they were making every effort to be offensive, but it’s not like they were putting up posters in downtown Mecca. I may think it’s juvenile and stupid (and I do), but it’s their choice. I doubt that many of the rioters are regular readers of Jyllands-Posten, a right-wing Danish rag; they should have just ignored it.
Unfortunately I can’t demonstrate my good faith by my willingness to allow anyone to offend my own beliefs in the same way, since my beliefs are of a somewhat different character. But, for the record, if anyone wants to draw some offensive cartoons about Galileo, or John Stuart Mill, or Charles Darwin, or Virginia Woolf, or Einstein, or Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Bertrand Russell, be my guest. I promise not to riot.